“Rainforest”, Bedford Square, London

RainsforestRainsforest 2

I have the pleasure of working in a rather fancy Georgian square in London. You know that part in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant is showing off to Julia Roberts and takes her into one of those magical and yet private oases in the middle of what always feels like such a sprawling and overcrowded city, well it’s a bit like that: gorgeous buildings, surrounding an exclusive and well-tended garden. You have to have a key to be allowed in. On a lunchtime you can usually find the workers from the surrounding buildings sitting on the pavement outside, propped against the railings, whilst all of that green loveliness sadly sits unoccupied inside. Everyone could of course walk about 200 metres past the rear entrance to the British Museum and instead sit in the less exclusive Russell Square Gardens, and I have never understood why they don’t, but I’m getting off the point of my post.

Earlier in the summer the serenity of one corner of the square was disrupted briefly as an area was cordoned off and an unusual sculpture, I’m not convinced that’s the right word, gradually appeared out of a pile of rocks and metal. Created by the Chilean-German architecture practice GUN Architects, the erection, called Rainforest, stood outside the Architectural Association’s offices until last week when it was finally dismantled. The five-metre-high structure contained a special microclimate of tree-like structures with an arrangement of fabric “stalactites” which gently dripped water into pools below, which were bedecked with ferns. The intention was for visitors to sit beneath the stalactites and enjoy the raindrops, pools and plants.

It certainly created a talking point, but sadly very quickly looked a little bit scruffy as some of the carefully arranged rocks at its base gradually went AWOL. I’m not sure what it says about me that my immediate thought on seeing it completed was that someone was likely to run off with the rocks or at least lob them through a nearby window. Clearly I wasn’t brought up in one of those exclusive London squares!

Majorelle reflections

Majorelle reflectionHaving been caught up in something else for a while, I realise I have let this slide. So I think it’s time to get back to Morocco. I’ll ease back in with a photo post from the end of my trip, taken in the Jardin Majorelle (Majorelle Garden) in Marrakech back in March of this year. Jacques Majorelle was a French painter who fell in love with Morocco whilst travelling there in the early 1900s. He settled in Marrakech, remaining until ill health finally took him back to his native France just before his death in 1962. Whilst in the city he acquired land and eventually commissioned an architect to build him a Moorish villa. Around that villa he explored his inner botanist and laid out an impressive garden. He was obliged to open it up to the public in 1947 as a result of some unfortunate personal circumstances and towards the end of his life he was sadly forced to sell portions of his land. After his death the garden fell into disrepair. In 1980 it was finally saved from the potentially appalling fate of being replaced by a hotel by some unlikely saviours (Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé), who in a true labour of love restored it to its former glory.

Today it is a very busy place, undoubtedly very pretty, but far too oversubscribed to be a place for peaceful contemplation, at least during peak opening hours. This image shows how beautifully reflective it could be if you could just ignore all of the other tourists.

The Idiots go long: Endure24, Wasing Park, 2014

Endure tshirtLast year I took part in a 24-hour endurance running event called, rather appropriately, Endure24. My Sunday running group, the Village Idiots, entered as a team of seven, the weather was glorious and we basically enjoyed a 24-hour picnic in a field in Berkshire interspersed by occasional five-mile runs. My own contribution to the proceedings was five laps, that’s 25 miles, and I was frankly quite chuffed with that. So, the question is, when registration opened for the 2014 event in August 2013 how did I find myself signing up as part of a mixed pair? How do you go from thinking that being part of a team of seven is the best way to run a 24-hour endurance relay to a team of two? Mr B – a fellow Idiot – and I felt that we really could have run a bit more than our 25 miles, but we didn’t want to go totally mad and step up to the solo event, so we agreed that as the “Gruesome Twosome” we could put in more laps without the added pressure of competing individually. That’s some crazy runners’ logic for you.

Due to an admin error we would be joined only by D, who had registered as a solo male. The rest of the Idiots had failed to register a team in time for what is turning into an incredibly popular event. Thankfully though, Mrs B and Big Sis decided to join us as race support crew instead, with a couple of bottles of wine stashed away for the evening session. I was a little envious.

Hiding in the tentWe sent the boys out on Friday to select prime locations for the tents: one in the special solo area next to the start line for D and one to serve as race HQ slightly further away from the race area. The second would be somewhere for everyone to hide in when the torrential rain struck. The moral of the story for any race organiser surely must be, don’t plan a 24-hour outdoor event on Glastonbury weekend!

We were ready for the weather though and thankfully when the first rumbles of thunder echoed overhead the tent was already fully prepped, the snacks were out, the kettle was on and we were able to shelter inside as lightning flashed around the Wasing Park Estate, briefly knocking out the speaker system and causing the organisers to do some additional safety checks before the off.

We had a plan, we would do two laps at a time, sets of ten miles rather than five, interspersed with rest stops of between 90 minutes and two hours. If we could do five sets a piece we would be delighted. Rain was hammering down out of a very angry sky as Mr B walked over to the start. At just past 12 pm on Saturday 28 June we were finally off. Well, Mr B was. I had another two hours to wait before I had to get my running socks on.Endure24 2014

As he completed his first lap, he looked strong, exceptionally wet and muddy, but strong. When he finished his second he handed me the wristband (which served as the baton) with a smile and off I went.

Lap one seemed longer than I remembered from last year, but they count the distance in km rather than miles so it oddly seems further. In 2013 there had been a big dogleg in the camping area at the end but I guess in order to fit more tents in they had transferred this to the middle of the course. The new bit was a tight, potentially boggy trail section that would certainly be exciting during the hours of darkness.

Doing two laps instead of one was definitely more challenging. I had to remind myself to take it easy, that I needed to retain some energy for the second lap. I probably ran those first two laps quicker than I should have, but as I handed back over to Mr B, I felt pretty good.

As he came round to finish his third, Mr B understandably looked a little more tired than he had after his second and when he came in having finished his fourth there was a quick team talk about dropping back down to a lap at a time. Running my third I could feel it too. Two laps every time was going to be too much. Halfway through my fourth I suddenly felt really hungry and found myself dreaming about what I might eat during my next break.

When I reached the start/finish line I was unexpectedly herded into the pit stop (D’s solo area) by a super-efficient pit team of Big Sis and Mrs B. They handed me coffee, water and a pot of fruit and nuts and asked if I wanted to go round again, Mr B needed a rest. Well, so did I. I was already spent, 20 miles and only eight hours in. I said no, or words to that effect.

I made a strategic error, I had an hour in my lovely goose down sleeping bag. My head told me I didn’t want to go out again. Mr B put in another lap. I fought against my negative thoughts and changed into my third set of fresh kit and went out again, taking my head torch, it would be dark this time when I returned. It was raining, the trail was cut up massively, parts of it incredibly boggy. The puddles were huge, in between each puddle was a slippery mess. It was like Hellrunner, but dark, and thankfully without the Bog of Doom. Miraculously, I came back with a much more positive attitude than I had left with, ready to put in another one after Mr B’s next lap. He felt the same, out he went into the darkness.SJK in the darkness

Waiting for Mr B, I nearly talked myself out of it again, but when he came back I knew I couldn’t let him down, so out I trotted once again in change of clothing number four. It was very wet in places, a morass, a quagmire; I had plenty of time out there alone in the darkness to think of appropriate descriptive words. The trail was marked by glow sticks, with shelters decked in fairy lights at strategic points for the marshals and medics. There was also a fairy out there in the darkness. I think it was the photographer lady, all decked out in lights with a glowing wand, she obviously took her supportive role quite seriously.SJK in the darkness 2

We decided that considering the conditions it would make sense to have a break and get some kip. I finished lap six at about 1.20 am and wouldn’t go out again until nearly 6.00 am. I didn’t really sleep, by then I felt damp and horrible and although it wasn’t particularly noisy my body and mind weren’t feeling very restful.

On lap seven I could tell my body was tired. I sectioned out the route in my mind, talking myself through every stage. The first km started with a hill, I walked up it. I ran from the km marker to the next hill just before km three, which I walked up. I ran from there to the new dogleg, walking up a hill towards km four. There was a theme developing, walk the hills, run the flats. I reminded myself at the 4 km marker that I was now half way round; with every new step I was closer to the finish line. The stretch from four to five was mostly downhill and just after km five came the water stop. I took a cup and sipped it slowly as I walked up the hill, the one that had become ankle-deep in sludgy mud overnight. This was the last hill on the loop, once I had reached the top there was no excuse not to run again. Marker six was at a marshal’s tent and not long after that a downhill stretch led to the long, flat, wide path towards the race’s base. The final stretch in the field at the end was now very muddy, but in sight of everyone I couldn’t walk, I chose a better route than I had in the darkness and plodded on.DSCF3439

Mr B’s turn again. I wasn’t sure how much more I could actually “run”, but it was only about 8.30 am when Mr B returned, so off I went again, lap eight, 40 miles. Having reached his 40 miles, Mr B was done and I was again herded into the pit stop. D, who’d been out there on his own all that time, fighting his own demons far better than I, was going out again and Big Sis and Mrs B thought it might be nice if I joined him. This would take me up to 45 miles, there was definitely time and I was happy to accompany D as he reached mile 90.

As we left the field for the first hill a group of runners sat by the path stood and cheered. D had obviously made some fans on his Endure24 journey. Quite right too, having taken part as a pair in those conditions and having run further in one day than I had ever run before, by nearly 20 miles, I had a tiny inkling as to the mental and physical strength that D and the other solo athletes must possess to achieve what they do.Final lap

On that final lap we chatted about whether we should do any more. Frankly I didn’t want to, but if D had decided to go again I would have felt I should accompany him. He thought he could probably just fit in two more laps, taking him up to the 100, but he could also feel his body was on the edge of potential injury. The sensible decision would be to stop, to save himself for another day. Common sense ultimately prevailed and we crossed the line together, to commentary from the race organisers and cheers from D’s new legion of fans. After eating a veggie breakfast (me), collecting our medals and posing for the requisite photos, Endure24 was finally over for another year.

The question is, in what formation will the Idiots choose to fly next year? Flags

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside: Worthing

I’ve been a bit slack about posting of late, so here are some pics of a recent foray I made to the classic British seaside town of Worthing. The largest town in West Sussex, Worthing is situated at the foot of the South Downs National Park on the south coast of England, ten miles west of its slightly sexier neighbour Brighton. I’ve been dallying with the idea of buying my first house and have a real urge to live by the sea. However, once you also factor in the ability to commute to London, prices go up and square footage comes down. Worthing may not be as sexy as Brighton, but it is still relatively cheap in comparison. It also has a fine history of film and theatre and some beautiful old buildings. Percy Bysshe Shelley (the famous Romantic poet) owned several properties in the area in the early nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” while staying in the town in the summer of 1894, and in 1896, the first moving picture show seen in the town was presented on the pier. Worthing still boasts three theatres, one of Britain’s oldest cinemas and a thriving contemporary arts scene. The town’s most impressive sight, however, is without doubt its pier. Designed by Sir Robert Rawlinson, it was opened on 12 April 1862. At the northern end is the Pavilion Theatre with its prominent domed roof, in the middle is the Pier Amusements arcade and at the sea end is the lovely, and recently refurbished in a very cool 1930s art deco style, Southern Pavilion café. Having tasted their fabulous butterscotch flavoured cake whilst lounging on an art deco sofa, listening to music from that period, drinking an ice-cold Peroni, on a beautiful summer day, gazing out on the amazing views of the sea and south coast, my decision about where I should live was almost a no-brainer.DSC_0958_edited_edited DSC_0973_edited DSC_0960_edited_edited DSC_0961_edited DSC_0963_edited_edited DSC_0964_edited DSC_0967_edited DSC_0968_edited_edited_edited DSC_0969_edited DSC_0971_edited DSC_0972_edited

Ups and downs: Pewsey Downsaround (26.6 miles) and Marlborough Downs Challenge (20 miles)

Two out of my last four weekends have been spent ankle-deep in mud, instructions in hand, trying to navigate around some of Wiltshire’s most scenic countryside. The first of these occasions was for a Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) event called the Pewsey Downsaround. The LDWA host a number of events over the course of the year, primarily walks, but they don’t mind if you run as long as you start after they’ve had time to get the checkpoints prepared. They involve a variety of distances, allowing a range of abilities to take part, and are hosted in some of Britain’s most attractive spots (see From behind the fence, for example). They are extremely civilised events, with checkpoints liberally sprinkled along the route, manned by friendly helpers offering tea, juice, cakes and biscuits. If, like me, you insist on having something at every checkpoint, you can easily consume more calories than you expend throughout the day. They are also very reasonably priced events (Pewsey was only £8.50 for a non-member) and deliciously uncompetitive.

A group of the fabled Village Idiots would be taking part in the 2014 event. Two would take on the 10-mile walk, two more the 17-mile walk and one crazy fool the 35-mile run. I figured that with Endure24 fast approaching at the end of June it might be a good opportunity to introduce some distance into my training. However, not having had a brilliant winter of running and maintaining a stubborn refusal to do anything with 30 in the title, I plumped for the 26.6-mile run. This would also enable me to finally declare myself an ultra runner without having to do anything too painful to achieve the title. Anything above marathon distance (26.2 miles) is officially an ultra, so that extra 0.4 of a mile was going to give me extra bragging rights.

The day of the event dawned. Sadly it was one of those grey and rainy days us Brits are famous for. Just as we arrived at Pewsey Scout Hut, where the walk/run would start and finish, the first of the expected inundations struck. It sounded like hail; I was pleased we were still in the hut. Fortunately, by the time we were ready to leave it had passed and we were soon out into the countryside. It was a little muddy underfoot, but nothing my Brookes Pure Grit couldn’t handle. God I love those trainers; sadly they didn’t stay their beautiful luminous orange selves for long.

I would be running with D until the 26.6 and 35-mile routes split. I enjoy running with D very much, but I was also looking forward to navigating my own way around the course (ably supported by laminated A5 instructions and my Garmin, thank heavens for very well organised and far more technologically capable friends).

The scenery through the watery sheen of the day’s drizzly weather was glorious, we encountered sheep, which idiotically scampered along the track in front of us, attempting to escape from what they perceived as a threat by running in the same direction as we were travelling, we ascended the Giant’s Grave (a bloody massive hill), saw a white horse formed on the hillside with chalky stones, drank tea brewed in the back of a horse box, stopped for a photo opportunity at Avebury (basically Stonehenge’s bigger, much cooler brother), ran through nettles in the pouring rain whilst eating emergency jelly babies, and waded through a muddy woodland liberally sprinkled with a carpet of bluebells. It was great. Back at the scout hut over five hours later, the volunteers plied me with biscuits, crisps, endless cups of tea and rice pudding. Oh happy days.Worrying sheepAscend the Devil's Grave!White horseAveburyBluebells and mudThe second event was the Marlborough Downs Challenge, a 20 or 32-mile run/walk around a very similar area. This time it cost £22 to enter and although you had to take the route instructions with you, the trail was marked at particularly confusing points. This would turn out to be very handy indeed. Big Sis and I entered the 20-mile run, with the intention of taking it nice and easy. We gathered at Marlborough School, which is usually private but had granted everyone access for the occasion, and the difference from the LDWA event was immediate. There was definitely a more competitive edge, with a significant number of club vests in the field. Perhaps we should have set off with the walkers instead? The trail was very muddy, not so worrying for me as I had my trusty trail shoes, but Big Sis was in road shoes and found herself slipping and sliding about all over the place. It was pretty hard to concentrate on the trail when the woodland was bedecked so beautifully in bluebells and wild garlic.

At the pace we were running, hitting the first couple of checkpoints was a challenge, and then the rain came. When I say rain, I mean deluge. One minute it was spitting and, “just in case”, we were popping our waterproofs on, the next we were assaulted head on by piercing, painful, icy cold rain. Within moments I was sodden, right down to my knickers, and the instructions were a papier maché globule up Big Sis’s sleeve. In the midst of the barrage we came across some wildlife blocking the track, a group of cows and their skittish calves. We’re not a brave pair and had to hold on to each other and walk very slowly through the middle, thanking the lady cows for not accidentally trampling us to death.

It stopped almost as quickly as it started, by checkpoint three the sun was back out. It was to be the theme of day. During the next inundation we found ourselves pondering a swift drink in the doorway of the Wagon and Horses. Before we could decide, it stopped. At the next checkpoint the track met up with the 35-mile route and the frontrunners, and we could almost pretend to be serious ultra runners.

We didn’t stop in Avebury, although we were tempted by the Red Lion, rumoured to be Britain’s most haunted pub, but continued straight on out into the countryside and up on to the Ridgeway. We passed a number of Duke of Edinburgh groups coming the other way, and a bag of stray tent pegs in the path; someone was going to have a very awkward night’s sleep. The view over the top was amazing, particularly crossing the gallops. Coming out of the final checkpoint, back came the rain. This time the wind was from behind, giving a much needed blast up the rear.

The finish wasn’t far after that and I soon got my hands on the real reason I’d signed up: a very impressive mug from a local pottery. A cup of tea in said mug and some complimentary macaroni cheese later and I’d almost forgotten how soggy it was.More bluebellsWild garlicAnkle-deep mudLovely downsMore lovely downsScary pubBeautiful countrysideEyes on the prize

Brighton’s West Pier: faded seaside glory

Brighton's West Pier

Last month I made my first visit to Brighton on the south coast of England. I’m not really sure why it took me 36 years to get there, particularly since I used to live in London, a mere hour away by train, but I’m pleased I finally rectified the situation as it’s a fun and funky seaside town. The photo shows one of Brighton’s “attractions”: the remains of the West Pier. Built in 1866 by Eugenius Birch, it has been closed and sadly deteriorating since the mid-1970s. Over the years there was talk of renovation and redevelopment, but that finally slipped out of reach after 2003 when a series of fires reduced it to a charred and precarious wreck. I felt strangely ignorant, having no memory of the fire, but then remembered I was in Australia in 2003, which was a relief as with a history of senility in the family I was not ready to accept that particular fate quite yet. What the fire left behind has now been almost entirely swept away by the sea, but the little that remains still makes a very handy nesting site for sea birds and is a darkly photogenic view.

In March 2014 it was announced that a 175m “pier in the sky” (i360) would be built on the site. Estimated to bring £1 million of tourist revenue to Brighton every year, I guess it will be an economically sound addition to the seafront. However, it will surely never inspire the same romantic memories that a good old British seaside pier does. And I bet they won’t let you sit and eat your chips in it.

Morocco: “Why did you have to come to Casablanca? There are other places.”

Moroccan House HotelI was oddly nervous when I awoke in my Moroccan Gothic boudoir the next morning. However, despite the frilly lace canopy and the oppressive paintings of angry-looking men leering over nubile belly dancers in some ancient court setting, I had enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep. I guess I was nervous because I was alone in a North African country, aware that as a solo Western woman I might, at best, be the object of some mild curiosity. My experiences of Africa up until that point were admittedly limited to two trips to Egypt (when I was 9 and 22), during which my travelling companions (my family and five female co-workers, respectively) and I were hassled quite regularly, and a business trip to South Africa, during which I was instructed not to go out alone and generally driven about in big black 4x4s by worried-looking locals. None of which had left me with an overwhelming feeling of confidence about what would face me that day in Casablanca. However, I had read in the guidebooks that provided I dressed sedately and used some common sense, I would be ok (I was at least confident on the clothing front).

I breakfasted at the hotel. Comments on Trip Adviser had suggested that this might not be an enjoyable experience for a veggie, but I found it perfectly palatable. There was plenty for me to eat, and for someone with a sweet tooth the breakfast buffet offered up all manner of interesting biscuits and pastries. The coffee was a little sludgy, but I put that down to a cultural preference and tried not to swallow the detritus at the bottom of my cup.

I had an idea where I intended to go and questioned the lady on reception whether as a single female I needed to avoid any insalubrious areas. She gave me a look that suggested I was being a little over-cautious, but regardless, I think it’s only sensible when travelling alone to check whether there are any areas that should be avoided. I eventually left the hotel rocking what my dad later described as a female Indiana Jones look. I blame the sun hat, but you’ve got to admit the trilby/fedora style is much nicer than a baseball cap and gives far better coverage from the damaging rays of the sun. Let’s face it, I’m so pasty that under certain lights I’m actually blue and I have hair a shade of ginger that will stop traffic in direct sunlight; I was going to stand out whatever I was wearing.

I made it to Place des Nations Unies, from where I entered the old medina. I had been greeted politely by a few folk on the brief walk from the hotel, all notably male, and as I entered the medina a young Moroccan man sidled up alongside me and asked if I was Australian before deciding he would be my guide. Now, I’m a stereotypically awkward English person, I don’t like conflict and I’d rather die than cause offence to anyone; I looked him in the eye and very politely but firmly told him that although I was grateful for his assistance I actually wanted to explore on my own. He shook my hand and very solemnly said that he understood and that he hoped I had an enjoyable time in Casablanca. Quite a difference from my previous experiences in Egypt and infinitely preferable.

I tagged on to the back of what turned out to be a German tour group, thinking there was safety in numbers. Unfortunately they stopped suddenly to look at something and not wishing to appear to have obviously latched on to them, I had to continue on past. I suddenly found myself in an alarmingly quiet warren of small streets, and realising that it was probably not clever in any city to be walking alone down deserted side streets, I backtracked onto the more obviously trodden path.

I stumbled into a very busy and brightly coloured fruit and vegetable market on the edge of the old medina. Men and women hustled and bustled about. Several of the ladies wore winter djellabas, fleecy versions of their usual cotton over dresses, like onesies (some were even animal print: cow, leopard, zebra), but open at the feet. I would have taken photos, but it felt inappropriate. This was not a regular tourist spot. Looking around me I saw few obviously Western faces, just people getting on with their everyday tasks, not batting an eyelid at having their day invaded by me, but equally not deserving to be catalogued and photographed by every passing wide-eyed holidaymaker.Old Medina, Casablanca

The medina had been a maze of small streets, and although I vaguely had an idea of the direction I had been travelling in, I wasn’t overly sure how far I had gone, so once free of the market and back on the main highway, I’ll admit I was a little disorientated. I was actually looking for one of the largest mosques in the world: Hassan II, the minaret of which should have been fairly easy to spot at 210m, but I couldn’t see it. Walking purposefully whilst marginally lost and trying not to look it is a bit of an art form, one that I obviously haven’t quite mastered yet. Fortunately I had only drawn the attention of an elderly gentleman out walking with his small granddaughter. He said that he was heading in that direction and that I should walk with him as it wasn’t sensible to be walking alone down some of the side streets. So much for the lady in the hotel reception telling me everywhere was safe to wander around in.

I had a very interesting chat with my rescuer, and as we turned the corner I finally saw the missing minaret. The gentleman spoke Arabic, French and English fluently, which always makes me feel a little bit sad about my underdeveloped language skills, and told me that if it had been another day he would have sent me into the mosque with his wife so that I could see the areas where the women pray. Finally, a stone’s throw from what is an absurdly imposing building, we shook hands and off he trundled with his small granddaughter, hand in hand, a kind and generous man.Hassan II

I would actually be going inside the mosque as part of the Exodus/Imaginative tour, but I didn’t think it would hurt to check it out from outside in advance. The sun was high and the sky a dazzling blue backdrop to the white exterior of the mosque, with its intricately carved facade and its minaret tiled prettily in green, the sacred colour of Islam. I played about taking selfies with the help of my camera tripod and the self-timer for a while before advancing closer to the building. At one stage I was whistled at (and I mean by use of an actual whistle, not in a “hey sexy lady”, British builder kind of way) by a gentleman herding tourists into the building. I assured him I would be on a tour tomorrow and thanked him for his assistance. I was then approached by a young Moroccan guy, an English student, attired in what seemed to be the casual wear of choice for many young Moroccan men: the track suit (c. 1993). Bless, he was sweet enough, but once I had declared that I didn’t need any assistance and that I didn’t support Manchester United, we had basically covered all the conversational topics either of us could think of.Selfie timeIndiana Jones

It was time to promenade alongside the sea wall towards the lighthouse. The dusty path along the seafront is pretty grotty and liberally strewn with rubbish, certainly not a spot for a romantic amble. Thank god I didn’t have anyone to have a romantic amble with. There were a few runners out, including one lady. It was a fairly hot day but she was completely covered up, head to toe, topping her outfit off with a very baggy pink cagoule that nearly reached her knees. I doubt the locals would have appreciated my slightly less subdued running attire, which I had thankfully left at home.The promenade, CasablancaCsablanca seafront

The lighthouse, sitting disconsolately at the end of the promenade, is not a particularly picturesque attraction. One side of the approach road houses what looks like a slum, whilst on the other, tuxedo-clad bouncers guard the doors of more salubrious, and obviously more exclusive, seaside restaurants and bars. As I walked along I encountered a small herd of goats and sheep barrelling down the path, no shepherd in sight. I stepped off the path to avoid being trampled by the straggly specimens, onto what appeared to be a former defence emplacement.The lighthouse, Casablanca

The sea was vicious at this side of the bay, exceptionally wild, with waves crashing onto some exceptionally treacherous rocks. In all honesty it was a bit of an unusual spot, and a sad scene when considering the obvious contrast between rich and poor. I didn’t linger long.

My return journey involved a very brief chat in French with a man reading a book as he walked. It would seem that if you say you don’t speak much French to someone, but do it in a passable French accent, it doesn’t deter them from trying to engage you in conversation in that language. Bugger, my limited knowledge couldn’t sustain a lengthy chat.

Hassan II minaretBack at the mosque the muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer, so I sat for a short while and people watched as the great and the good of Casablanca slowly descended on Hassan II. With a capacity of 25,000 worshippers, I was intrigued to watch the crowds of people arrive. However, I was also a little tired and hungry and eventually decided to head back to the hotel. What I really wanted to do was to sit in a café and have a nice strong coffee, and perhaps a slice of cake, but every café I passed only contained men. Unsure of the coffee house etiquette, and not wishing to cause offence, my desire for caffeine would have to remain unfulfilled. On the walk back, along the busiest streets as instructed by my earlier guide, I picked up yet another friend. This young gentleman was an English teacher and keen to chat. He guided me back to Place des Nations Unies and was doing very well until he felt the need to ask me my marital status. I fended off the question by flashing my grandmother’s wedding band, which I’d decided to wear to save such queries, and he downgraded his enquiry to whether I had a Facebook account. I told him I didn’t believe in having that much information freely available to people on the internet, a blatant lie and perhaps a bit mean, but I have no desire to befriend every chap who wants to engage me in conversation, however pleasant they appear to be.

Ensconced back in the hotel, I asked the lady on reception if she knew where I could find Rick’s Café. Having worked almost until the moment I got on the aeroplane, I had failed to purchase a guidebook and my smart phone was not feeling very smart having been dropped on the floor of the airport toilet. Sadly, she had no idea what I was talking about. I made do with a pizza in a reasonably priced restaurant opposite the hotel; not exactly Moroccan fare, but in all likelihood the days ahead would be filled with enough cous cous for any traveller to bear.

So, why Casablanca? As Rick says to Ilsa in the famous 1942 film “There are other places”. Aside from the medina, mosque, lighthouse, a few remaining colonial buildings, and some exceptionally helpful menfolk, there really doesn’t appear to be enough to fill more than day’s visit to the city. It is admittedly far safer than South Africa and notably less bothersome than the tourist parts of Egypt, which are definite plus points, but I would perhaps suggest basing yourself in Rabat, which appears to have a lot more attractions and is a more picturesque city, and catching the train to Casablanca for a day out. Although, if you do find yourself in Rick’s Café please tell me whether it was worth a visit.